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Force of Evil (Dec. 25, 1948)

Force of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Enterprise Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.

Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).

A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.

Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.

Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.

Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

Garfield upstairs

Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.

Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.

On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776” as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.

Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.

Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.

Gomez and Garfield

Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.

All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.

Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.

There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.) You can watch that scene in the clip below, although it should go without saying that it contains spoilers:

Key Largo (July 31, 1948)

Key LargoJohn Huston’s Key Largo was the fourth and final film Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart made together.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.

Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.

The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.

Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).

When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”

Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.

The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.

Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.

Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.

Ride the Pink Horse (Oct. 8, 1947)

Robert Montgomery directed and starred in two movies released in 1947. The first, Lady in the Lake, was an interesting stylistic experiment — an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel that was filmed entirely from private eye Philip Marlowe’s point of view. The second, Ride the Pink Horse, is more traditionally lensed. It’s based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, with a screenplay by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht. It’s also the better of the two films, so naturally it’s the one that isn’t available on DVD.

Besides being a more satisfying and involving film, Ride the Pink Horse also lets Montgomery flex his acting chops. In Lady in the Lake, since we only see what he’s seeing, all we hear is his voice, and his performance is somewhat listless.

The character Montgomery plays in Ride the Pink Horse — Lucky Gagin — is a noir archetype; the returning veteran of World War II. But unlike baroque, oneiric noirs like Somewhere in the Night (1946), in which a veteran suffers amnesia, brainwashing, or any number of high-concept emotional injuries, Montgomery’s character in Ride the Pink Horse is believable as a returning combat veteran. Lucky Gagin is a bitter, tight-lipped man whom violence hangs over like a dark cloud. As soon as he steps off a Greyhound bus in the little town of San Pablo, New Mexico, we can read in his face miles of hard road, lost friends, and random death.

Lucky Gagin is obviously a less intelligent person than the man who plays him, and I wasn’t always convinced that Gagin was as dumb as some of his words and actions, but Montgomery’s performance is mostly believable. His pain-wracked sneer is especially easy to buy, which is good, since Gagin spends half the film clinging to life, bleeding out from a knife wound.

Gagin is in New Mexico to blackmail racketeer and war profiteer Frank Hugo (Frank Clark) with a canceled check that proves Hugo’s involvement in criminal enterprise. Hugo ridicules Gagin for asking for a paltry amount. Nevertheless, there’s the sense hanging over the film that whether Gagin asks for one dollar or a million, he’ll never get it.

In one of those little touches that I love, Hugo wears a hearing aid, and he often has to move the receiver clipped to his shirt into a better position to hear what’s going on. It’s never played for laughs, but it humanizes him, which makes his power and malevolence all the more believable.

Like a lot of thrillers, Ride the Pink Horse is replete with characters whose motivations are vague and mysterious. The most mysterious of all is the Mexican-American Indian girl Pila (Wanda Hendrix), who develops an unnatural attachment to Gagin as soon as he steps off the bus. She foresees his death, and gives him a little doll to carry that she says will protect him. She also follows him around for the entire picture, despite the fact that he’s constantly mean to her. Long braids and brownface notwithstanding, Hendrix isn’t very believable as an American aboriginal, but she’s nice to look at, which makes up for a lot.

The other angels who come into Gagin’s life — and who might be able to help him if he could only get over his distrust of everyone — are an elderly G-man named Bill Retz (Art Smith), who wants Gagin to help him bring in Hugo using legal means, and a chubby, good-natured Mexican named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who runs a carousel, and who gives Gagin a place to sleep.

It’s Pancho’s carousel that gives the picture its title, but if there’s a deeper meaning to the pink merry-go-round horse, I couldn’t suss it out. Does it symbolize death? Life? Everything? Nothing? Your guess is as good as mine.

Ride the Pink Horse is a crisp, well-made thriller. It’s not quite an all-time classic, but it’s worth a look, especially if you’re a noir aficionado, and it’s well deserving of a proper DVD release.

Singapore (Aug. 13, 1947)

Note to aspiring makers of B movies — if you’re going to blatantly rip off Casablanca (1942), take a page from director John Brahm’s book. Don’t just change the characters’ names and tack on a happy ending. Do it with real panache and also change the hero’s occupation to “pearl smuggler” and spice up the love triangle by giving the heroine a case of amnesia.

True to its title, Singapore is steeped in the exoticism and heat of the Pacific Rim, but like the film noir techniques Brahm uses to tell his story, it’s mostly just window dressing for a run-of-the-mill potboiler. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brahm keeps things moving along nicely, and Singapore is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a melodrama and you can overlook some contrivances.

When Matt Gordon (MacMurray) returns to Singapore after World War II, it’s clear as soon as he steps off the plane that he has a history there. Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) has Gordon brought to his office, and he reminds him that the penalty for removing illegally obtained pearls from a British colony is a minimum of 10 years in prison.

“Before the war it was only eight,” Gordon quips. “But I guess everything’s gone up, huh?”

Gordon sits down in the hotel bar, orders two gin slings, and sits alone, reminiscing about life in Singapore before the war. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), but their whirlwind romance was cut short by the beginning of hostilities with the Japanese.

They were engaged to be married, but before they could tie the knot she was killed in a bombing raid, and Allied forces had occupied his hotel room, where his $250,000 worth of pearls were secreted in the motor of the ceiling fan in his room.

He made it out of Singapore with his life, but that’s all, and now that the war is over he’s intent on retrieving his pearls. (It’s established that Gordon has a service record, and saw combat during the war, perhaps to engender audience sympathy.)

Of course, Linda didn’t really die in a bombing raid. She was injured and stricken with total amnesia. Unable to remember any details of her former life, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where she met Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), a British plantation owner who saved her life many times during the war. Now they are married, and her name is Ann Van Leyden. No matter how many times Gordon calls her “Linda,” she just can’t remember their time together, or the love they shared.

So Gordon has two problems — winning back Linda/Ann, and somehow getting his pearls out of the ceiling fan of a hotel room that is now occupied by an obnoxious married couple. The problem of the pearls is compounded not only by the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, but also by the corpulent gangster Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez), who wants the pearls for himself.

There are a lot of ceiling fans in Singapore, and none of them move quickly. It’s all part of the languorous, overheated atmosphere of the film, but like I said above, it’s all just window dressing. The Asian extras in the background and the crowded streets of the port city add ambiance, but not much else. The action could be moved to any other “exotic” locale, and few details of the plot would have to be changed. (And that’s exactly what happened in 1957 when director Joseph Pevney remade Singapore as a vehicle for Errol Flynn called Istanbul.)

I liked Singapore despite its flaws, and it’s always enjoyable to watch the beautiful Ava Gardner do anything. I didn’t completely buy her relationship with the hulking, thuggish Fred MacMurray — I’ve always thought MacMurray was better in comedic roles than dramatic ones — but it works well enough to keep the film moving.

Johnny O’Clock (Jan. 23, 1947)

Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock — yes, it’s really about a man named “Johnny O’Clock” — isn’t as good as some of Rossen’s later films, like The Hustler (1961), but it’s a great start. Rossen was a prolific writer of screenplays, but Johnny O’Clock was his first time in the director’s chair.

The improbably named protagonist is played with a light touch by former crooner Dick Powell. Johnny is a partner in a New York gambling syndicate run by an oily, overweight gangster named Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).

Marchettis is married to a beautiful sloppy drunk named Nelle (Ellen Drew) who’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, but who loves the dough too much to ever leave Marchettis. Powell’s scenes with Gomez and Drew are some of the best of the picture, as the boozy moll falls all over Johnny in front of Marchettis and his heavy-hitters, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s jealousy. At the same time, Marchettis seems desperate for approval from both Johnny and his wife. In one scene, he goes on and on about the portrait he had a Mexican boy paint of him. When he shows it to Johnny and asks him if he likes it, Johnny simply responds, “It looks like you.”

There’s a police inspector named Koch (Lee J. Cobb) who’s hounding Johnny O’Clock, lurking in the lobby of the hotel where he lives and constantly trying to catch him riding dirty. Johnny’s association with corrupt cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) rubs the honest Inspector Koch the wrong way, especially since Blayden’s been on the winning end of more than one shootout with Marchettis’s rivals. Koch suspects that Marchettis and Johnny are using Blayden to do their dirty work under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”

When a pretty hat-check girl who works at Johnny O’Clock’s casino goes missing, things heat up. The girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), was dating Chuck Blayden, and when her body is found in her gas-filled apartment — an apparent suicide — Koch smells foul play. As soon as Harriet’s sister, Nancy Hobson (Evelyn Keyes), arrives in New York to claim her sister’s body, cracks begin to appear in Johnny O’Clock’s carefree exterior. He and Nancy are attracted to each other, but are from different worlds. She makes him want to cash out and run away with her, but if you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, you know that cashing out always comes at a price.

Johnny O’Clock is the third of many noirs to star Powell after he shed his image as a boyish Depression-era crooner and appeared as Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Johnny O’Clock gives Powell a chance to craft a more three-dimensional character than he had a chance to in either Murder, My Sweet or Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), and he’s mostly successful, although he didn’t seem fully up to the challenge of some of the more emotional moments in the film’s climax. (Powell was a breezy and charming actor who could project toughness and nastiness when he had to, but raw, naked emotion wasn’t one of the tools in his actor’s toolbox.)

While the story’s twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, the actors are all good, and enjoyable to watch. Lee J. Cobb’s most famous role is probably as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973), so it was fun to see him in a similar role, more than 25 years earlier.

Writer-director Rossen has a fuller vision of his criminal demi-monde that we see in most ’40s noirs, and his characters are convincing within its context. I really liked Johnny O’Clock, and I’d love to see proper DVD releases of more of Dick Powell’s film noirs in the future. I had to watch this one on a janky DVD-R recorded off of television.

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